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The Cost of Discipleship

Rev. Dr. Karin Case
Sun, Oct 21

Text: Mark 10:35-45

       This story from Mark’s gospel is filled with paradoxes. James and John approach Jesus with an outrageous request that is entirely self-seeking. “Rabbi, grant us places of privilege in your glory.” How, we wonder, can the disciples be so unaware, so petty, so clueless? James and John are so certain they’ve got it right, they are filled with self-confident pride.

 In following Jesus, haven’t they earned some reward? Surely there is glory for such committed discipleship! By their own reckoning, James and John have earned it. After all, they dropped their fishing nets by the Sea of Galilee, left their father Zebedee to run the family business, left everything behind to follow Jesus. It’s impressive.

 We’ve heard this story so many times that we may miss its shock value. How do you imagine the other disciples reacted when they heard James’ and John’s brazen request? Did they snicker? Was there a stunned silence? Mark tells us they became resentful.

It’s easy to read this as a simple object lesson, in which James and John are the butt of a joke and we’re all in on the joke. We know that this is outlandish self-aggrandizement. We know that the kin-dom of God is not about status and reward. We know—because Jesus tells us—that whoever would be great must be a servant of many.

 It’s easy to see James and John as clueless and misguided. There are so many gospel passages in in which the disciples just don’t get it. This is a sound reading of the gospel and, perhaps, a comfortable one. After all, there are so many times when we don’t get it. We miss Jesus’ call to us, or fail to understand the depths of what is asked. If the disciples were this clueless, then maybe there’s hope for us, too.

 But I suspect there’s something more profound, more troubling in Mark’s message. Something far less comfortable and comforting. There’s another way to read this passage. What if James and John do understand? This is Jesus’ third prediction of the passion in Mark’s gospel. Jesus is speaking quite clearly about suffering and death and about what lies ahead. What if the disciples do understand and they are simply terrified? Perhaps they see all too clearly what is asked of them and they are simply looking for some assurance of security.

 What if…what if this is the moment when the disciples got woke? Not to racism, but to the subtle privilege that has colonized their own minds? “Colonized minds.” That’s a fancy graduate school term. It just means the disciples are thinking like Rome. They’re thinking in those old familiar terms of empire—about using their status to lord it over others. They want to ply their merit so they can secure a privileged place. They’re thinking like Rome.  

 They are not thinking like men who know a true inner freedom and are living into the hope of God’s new kin-dom. James and John have been in the inner circle. They were among the very first disciples Jesus called. They’ve been “in on it” since the beginning. They have walked by Jesus’ side. They have lived that egalitarian community where the first are last, and the last are first. They have tasted the disruptive love of Christ-in-community, and still they are grasping after status and merit and rank.

 Here, in this moment, James and John are beginning to understand just how much is asked of them if they are to be faithful. And these two have already given so much!

 Mark draws a vivid contrast between the practices of this world—where people in authority are domineering and arrogant, and those ‘great ones’ know how to make their own importance felt, and the realm of God—where true greatness means humble service. Jesus lets John and James know, it’s not glory, but suffering they can expect as a result of discipleship.

 Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote powerfully about the cost of discipleship. For those who may not know him, Bonhoeffer, was a German pastor and theologian, a founder of the Confessing Church, and an anti-Nazi dissident. Bonhoeffer was arrested and imprisoned in 1943 in connection with a plot to overthrow Hitler, and in 1945 he was executed in a concentration camp, as the Nazi regime was collapsing. Bonhoeffer is a modern saint, a man of deep Christian conviction, who literally “gave his life for the many.” As much as anyone I can think of, Bonhoeffer took seriously Jesus’ call to discipleship, “not counting the cost.”

 He took quite seriously his station as a pastor and scholar and used it, not for self-aggrandizement, but to speak out against the horrors of the Nazi regime. Ultimately, it cost him his life. Bonhoeffer’s writing evinces a remarkable inner freedom. Here is an excerpt from his book, The Cost of Discipleship.

  Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: 'Ye were bought at a price', and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.

 Such words of courage and trust in God-through-Christ!

 Perhaps we are not called to martyrdom. (I kind of hope not.) But does Bonhoeffer speak to us? Does the gospel trouble and unsettle us? It should! Because here it says plain as day, that discipleship does not lead to comfortable reward. It actually costs us something. Do we come on Sunday, not merely to be comforted, but to open ourselves to the demands of our faith?

 In an odd way, when Christianity became the religion of empire, we lost something terrible. When our faith became easy, convenient, and mainstream we began to lose sight of its revolutionary power, it power to subvert the empire—both within our own minds and without.

 During the reign of Emperor Constantine the Great (306-337) Christianity began its transition to the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. What actually happened is that Constantine first decided to stop persecuting Christians. And in 313, the Edict of Milan decriminalized Christian worship. Constantine became a great patron of the church. And finally, in 380, decades after Constantine, the Edict of Thessalonica made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Now, I’m not going to evoke a golden age of early Christianity. And I’m certainly not going to valorize persecution. But. But, when Christianity became the religion of empire, Jesus’ radical message lost a subversive edge—or more correctly—it lost its prominent place in our consciousness.

 After centuries of being powerful—like Rome, millennia of being the dominant religion, and long epochs of colonial conquest, we Christians need to ask where our heads are at.  

 Maybe one of the gifts of this passage from Mark is that we see Christ’s subversive invitation with new eyes. We see James and John coming to a moment of insight. Oh, this heady, inner-circle experience that’s so seductive is not what Jesus is talking about. This power over—it tastes so sweet—but it’s not what’s in store for us. This path we are on—if we take it really seriously—offers no promises of protection. And that is some scary stuff.

 Maybe the invitation of Mark’s gospel is to be honest about the very human ways we seek status, recognition, and security.

 True discipleship calls us to give up old ways of being—give up clinging to achievements, let go of unearned advantage, not cash in on our privilege, let go of being “right,” of being control, being in charge, let go of our insider status.

 We are invited to see with new eyes the things to which we cling. True discipleship may call us to examine our whiteness, our affluence, or our generational wealth and ask how clinging to those colonizes our minds—makes us think like Rome and not like Jesus.

 This may feel like a message of hard comfort, but friends, it is good news! Our faith gives us strong and clear assurance. We are beloved. A way is being opened for us (even now) in the new community of love that Jesus makes real.

 This is our assurance and our hope.


1) Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship


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